Blunt critic on schools, integration

Times Staff Writer

Finding Jonathan Kozol’s house is a bit like looking for a Prohibition-era speak-easy. The directions, passed through a middleman, are a series of descriptions. You take a certain exit off I-95, make a left where the road ends, drive until you see a tall wooden fence abutting a low stone wall, turn onto a dirt lane and look for a red car next to a brown-shingled farmhouse built when this exurban stretch north of Boston was still British.

Then you park and start hollering.

But that assumes someone is listening. After 10 minutes of shouts, car-horn beeps and unanswered calls to Kozol’s home and cellphone, one final bellow finally elicits a muffled voice from inside. The door lock clicks and there he is, shirtless in dark blue sweatpants, hair messy from sleep at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, cellphone in his right hand and a rambling apology on his lips.

If, as conservative pot-stirrer Bernard Goldberg says in his new book, Kozol is No. 9 on the list of “100 People Who Are Screwing Up America,” the republic would seem safe. But looks can be deceiving.


Over the last four decades, Kozol, 68, has been one of the most persistent and persuasive critics of the nation’s troubled public education system, chronicling in such books as “Savage Inequalities” and “Amazing Grace” the effects on children and urban school districts from what he sees as endemic class and racial divides.

In a book due out Sept. 13 and excerpted in the September Harper’s magazine, Kozol pushes the argument further, contending that urban school districts -- including Los Angeles Unified -- are made up of individual schools as racially isolated as those of the Deep South in the pre-Civil Rights era. His mounting frustration over what he sees as an intransigent problem is reflected in the book’s title: “The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America,” written in a tone straddling the thin line between outrage and anger.

“Apartheid does not happen spontaneously, like bad weather conditions,” says Kozol, who will talk and sign books at 3 p.m. Oct. 2 at Los Angeles’ Hamilton High School. “It’s an act of human beings.”

Kozol thinks that advances born of the 1954 Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education case, which ruled segregation to be unconstitutional, have slowly eroded under a series of subsequent court decisions affecting how schools are financed. Most urban minority students receive educations inferior to those enjoyed by more affluent white suburban students, contributing to social isolation that helps perpetuate segregated neighborhoods -- “A self-betrayal of our national ideals,” Kozol says.

Kozol spent five years writing the book and visited 60 schools in 11 states. He writes at length about South Los Angeles’ Fremont High School, including a conversation with one teen girl he calls Mireya driven to tears because she was offered sewing courses instead of a college prep advanced placement class. A classmate told her that sewing was offered to “ghetto” students because white society does not want its daughters to become seamstresses -- revealing a deep stream of cynicism about his own role in society.

“These are children whom this nation does not truly value and of whom, despite our president’s rhetoric of ‘high expectations,’ we in fact expect so little that we will not let them go to the same schools our [white] children attend,” Kozol says, sitting in his musty 1740 farmhouse, surrounded by bookshelves and stacks and bins of notes and papers. “The kind of schooling that we give to children is the most important determinant of their future options in life.”

In many ways, the book is a continuation of the work Kozol has been doing most of his adult life, work that has made him a hero to legions of public school teachers and liberal education policymakers.

Joel Jordan, director of special projects for United Teachers Los Angeles, describes Kozol’s early work as groundbreaking.

“When I was a beginning teacher in the late ‘60s in East Oakland, his first book, ‘Death at an Early Age,’ had a profound effect on me,” Jordan says. “He was one of a new breed of education writers who exposed conditions in schools and helped young teachers cope with exigencies that [college] didn’t prepare us for. He exposed the horrendous conditions of working-class and minority schools.”

But to his critics, Kozol is a liberal ideologue too ready to blame racism in places where it might not be as dominant as he argues.

“I think he’s completely misdiagnosed the problem of the urban schools,” says Sol Stern, a conservative essayist and a fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. “His contention that they are deliberately starved of resources by a racist society is a wacky idea. It’s not true.”

Stern says Kozol ignores high-performing, and usually private, urban schools.

“He’s never owned up to the fact that plenty of inner-city minority schools are doing the job with less money. He’s an ideologue so he can’t admit Catholic schools are doing better jobs with less money,” Stern says. “If you read the corpus of his work, it’s clear he wants to use schools for indoctrinating kids with a progressive ideology.”

Kozol takes such criticism as part of the left-right political divide, of agendas battling agendas, which distract from efforts to bring together people from different races and economic classes -- key, he thinks, to forging a vibrant and diverse society.

“The ultimate solution isn’t to ride a bus,” he says. “It is to live in the same neighborhood, to grow up as friends together.”

Kozol thinks programs aimed at correcting the disparities lingering from legal segregation, such as the “Higher Horizons” program in New York City during the 1960s and ‘70s, fail because federal money does not follow the commitments.

“There’s a reason why politicians and the pedagogic establishment keep churning out these lists of new ‘how to fix it’ plans,” Kozol says. “It’s because they don’t dare speak about the central point. It is not that we don’t know what works in public education.... All we have to do is go out and visit Glencoe, Ill., Scarsdale, N.Y., or any of the wealthiest districts in California and we find out right away.”

The solution, he says, is equal funding at the national level, which he thinks is a natural progression from national education policies such as the No Child Left Behind Act, even though he is a harsh critic of the Bush administration’s program of testing and accountability. Kozol sees it as “the newest of perhaps 100 false promises.”

For example, he says, Bush’s program allowing students at failing schools to transfer to a better school within the district is a “cynical” game of musical chairs “when half the chairs are broken,” because the most troubled districts have few high-caliber schools to which the students can transfer.

Instead, Kozol says, the federal government should finance programs that allow students from failing urban systems to transfer to successful suburban systems, as has been done in Boston, Milwaukee and St. Louis.

And he ridicules euphemistic phrases that he says obscure some of public education’s most critical problems. “Neighborhood schools,” for instance, elicits images of local control and a skewed vision of small-town America, especially when the local school is set in a chronically poor and minority neighborhood. In that circumstance, he says, a neighborhood school is a segregated school.

“Let’s concede that we have decided to let our children grow up in two separate nations, and lead two separate kinds of lives,” Kozol says. “If, on the other hand, we have the courage to rise to this challenge to name what’s happening within our inner-city schools, then we also need the courage to be activist and go out and fight like hell to change it.”

Kozol thinks that would take a national political movement, much like the one that ended formal segregation. “I would like to see a new political movement that surges across this country with classroom teachers in the forefront,” Kozol says, “because they are the best witnesses to what is going on.”

Kozol became a “witness” himself by an act of violence.

He grew up in the affluent suburb of Newton, Mass., the son of a psychiatrist. He studied at Harvard, Class of ‘58, and won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, which he quit after a few months to move to Paris for a year to write and read.

Among the authors Kozol focused on was William Faulkner, whom he blames for his own rambling approach to language. In conversation, Kozol is a bundle of bridled energy, flashing an impish smile as he shifts his weight from one foot to the other like a slow-motion boxer. He starts sentences several times, rewinding the first few words until the thought crystallizes and then he embarks on a monograph-length point, digression leading to digression until, five or 10 minutes later, the words circle back to the point he started to make in the beginning. In his books, sentences filled with digressive clauses can nearly cover a page.

Upon returning from Paris, Kozol had planned to return to Harvard, eventually to teach English. But in 1964 three civil rights workers -- two white, one black -- were killed in Mississippi. Kozol said he could see himself in one of the victims, Michael Schwerner, a fellow Jew from the Northeast who had studied at another Ivy League school, Cornell University.

“He came from a family like mine, with sort of decent liberal parents who were progressive in their views about racial justice,” Kozol says. “I realized, gee, that could have been me. And I just felt I couldn’t go on with my plan.”

Kozol took a job that fall teaching fourth grade in an all-black school in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston but was fired after reading aloud a Langston Hughes poem, which was not part of the approved curriculum. “I liked the kids and I got angry at how they were being treated,” he says. “That really changed the whole direction of my life.”

Kozol detailed his experiences in “Death at an Early Age” in 1967, which won a National Book Award, and launched him on his career as a modern Jacob Riis, writing to draw the nation’s attention to what he sees as crucial social issues.

“I do feel heartsick that the inequalities, if anything, are worse today than they were when I wrote ‘Savage Inequalities,’ and that segregation is now back at the point where it was when I published my first book,” Kozol says. Yet he remains optimistic, believing a political movement will rise to fix the system he has been railing against for most of his professional career.

“I write books to change the world. Perhaps I can only change one little piece of that world,” Kozol says. “But if I can empower teachers and good citizens to give these children, who are the poorest of the poor, the same opportunity we give our own kids, then I’ll feel my life has been worth it.”